January 4, 2021. It's a new year and we're taking you on a trip abroad! Paris is magnifique with The Hot Club of Philadelphia’s Gypsy-Americana.
Even if the City of Lights wasn’t on your 2020 itinerary, now’s as good a time as any to engage with the quintessential jazz sound of Paris, the so-called Gypsy Jazz (alternatively known as "jazz manouche" in reference to the French Romani community from which Django Reinhardt came) pioneered by Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli, and their Hot Club of France Quintet in the 1930s.
Barry Wahrhaftig’s Hot Club of Philadelphia quintet has been among the finest local torchbearers of this music since getting together in 2002, and the album’s opening two tracks, “Melodie au Crépuscule” and “Blue Drag,” both classic Reinhardt tunes, signal that Reinhardt and Grappelli remain the group’s musical north star.
But Gypsy-Americana does much more than repackage well-worn motifs. At its best, it explores the genetic links between Gypsy Jazz and some of its more colorful musical cousins, branching off into territories that evoke both geographic distance and musical familiarity.
From Brazilian choro to traditional American folk and even klezmer, listeners will find most of it filtered through the lens of the Django-jazz prism, with the exception of a pair of timeless straight-ahead ballads in “They Say It’s Spring” and “Lover Man” that one can never really fault a jazz musician for wanting to record.
The “Blue Drag” here is anything but, starting the album off with the famous Reinhardt/Grapelli tune with Wahrhaftig playing Django and violinist Joseph Arnold ably playing Grappelli. The narrative quality of the next tune, Melodie au Crépuscule is even stronger—picture lazy late afternoons and the debonair insouciance of pleasure without consequence. It’s perfect daydreaming music for our present circumstances, “Total Recall” without the technological glitches.
Gypsy-Americana really starts striding with its third track, “Du Djaial,” a traditional Sinti waltz featuring Titi Bamberger, a mainstay of the global jazz manouche scene, on vocals and rhythm guitar. It’s the highlight of the Django-jazz triple-play that opens the album in no small part because Bamberger sings in the music’s native tongue.
The album then departs Gypsy and pulls into Americana, first with a take on Stephen Foster’s folk staple “Hard Times,” then continuing with Jay Ungar’s “Ashokan Farewell,” the Scottish-style lament that’s best known as the theme music for Ken Burns’ documentary series on the Civil War.
The former, a tune covered by the likes of Mavis Staples, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, features multi-part vocal harmonies of the type that are an unexpected (and pleasant) surprise on jazz albums. Wahrhaftig sings lead and plays guitar and is backed up vocally by Robbie Gregg, Meg Rozinski, and Tony Sailor. The latter serves as the perfect vehicle to showcase violinist Arnold, whose playing imbues the tune with every bit the pathos that made it such a memorable piece of the Burns documentaries.
“When Everything’s Better” is an original piece co-written by Wahrhaftig and Arnold, featuring assertive lead playing by Arnold and the first appearance of Wahrhaftig’s electric guitar, which is cool and round sounding and not overpowering—it fits in perfectly over top the rhythm guitar (also played by Wahrhaftig).
“Lover Man” and “They Say It’s Spring” are the two that aren’t like the others here, but for as well as they’re carried off, we’ll excuse the temporary break in continuity. The latter, sung most memorably by Blossom Dearie, is sung wonderfully here by Denise King—accompanied ably by Dave Hartle (piano), King really owns the tune.
“Lover Man” features vocalist Meg Rozinski, but the highlight is the interplay between Wahrhaftig comping chords on guitar while the venerable Larry McKenna solos on tenor saxophone. McKenna is such a treasure—and not just a Philadelphia treasure either, though we should count ourselves blessed to have such regular access to his mastery. I’m not sure where, outside of Stan Getz or Paul Desmond, tone like that is to be found.
Local bilingual vocalist Phyllis Chapell sings lead on two tunes, the first a take on Edith Piaf’s “Hymne a L’amour,” which Chapell sings in both French and English, accompanied just by Hartl.
The second is the album’s closer, a klezmer arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” for which Wahrhaftig’s brought out a full ensemble—a bona fide horn section and a mandolin to boot, along with regulars Tony Green on drums, Dylan Taylor on bass, and Arnold returning on violin.
It’s the perfect way to bring an album like Gypsy-Americana full circle, with a tune that’s not quite Gypsy jazz and not quite Americana but bound by musical genetics to each.